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BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
An Arkansas softball team that has national championship aspirations will get its 2024 season started Thursday at the Paradise Classic in Boca Raton, Florida.
The Razorbacks, ranked as high as 8th in the Softball America poll, will face Marshall at 1 p.m. CST and Florida Atlantic at 6 p.m. on the campus of Florida Atlantic University.
The first contest is being streamed via FloSoftball and the second on FAU’s website at https://fausports.com/sports/softball
“I think we are in a really good spot, we have really, really consistent energy and I think it is just fun and exciting and we are all looking forward to going to battle together this weekend,” noted Arkansas ninth-year head coach Courtney Deifel, who has added assistant coaches DJ Gasso and former Razorback All-America Danielle Gibson Whorton this offseason.
Arkansas, 11-3 on opening day and 28-8 on opening weekend (27-4 in the last seven seasons) under head coach Courtney Deifel, will play five games in the Paradise Classic.
The Razorbacks will also battle Ohio on Friday at 10:30 a.m. and then finish up with Saturday morning games against Penn State (8 a.m.) and Michigan State (10:15 a.m.).
Arkansas will then head to the Bear Fiesta Classic in Tucson, Ariz., next weekend (with all five games streamed) and then will host three home tournaments, beginning with a Thursday, Feb. 29 game at 4 p.m. against Illinois State at Bogle Park.
“We have a really stacked field and a really tough first day as we would want,” Deifel said. “I feel like our non-conference tournaments are going to be incredibly challenging, I think they are going to test us and I am looking forward to this first weekend.”
Arkansas is 1-6 all-time against FAU, whose second-year head coach is former Razorback volunteer assistant coach Jordan Clark.
In addition to its No. 8 ranking by Softball America, the Razorbacks – coming off a third straight 40-win season, a top four SEC finish and a No. 11 national seed that hosted an NCAA Tournament Regional – are also slotted as 12th by ESPN/USA Softball, 16th per USA Today/NFCA Coaches and 18th by D-1 Softball ion preseason polls.
There has been a surge in ticket sales, publicity and excitement from the Arkansas softball fan base, something that has Deifel, her staff and her players excited.
“We definitely feel that, we feel that more every year, we feel that earlier every year and it’s always nice when there are countdowns and they are not led by us,” Deifel said. “I think it is nice to see fans look forward to the year and it is exciting.”
Deifel, whose team will be trying to start 5-0 for the second straight season, is anxious to see her squad play this weekend, but not just in part to see its success.
“I think the biggest thing most coaches are curious about is just how their teams are going to handle adversity and how they are going to handle things that don’t go exactly as planned,” Deifel said. “Obviously wanting to see us gel and looking forward to seeing us play someone other than ourselves.
“It is the unexpected that I think I want to see how we respond to and that’s going to show the character of this team so that is the big question we have for the early games.”
Arkansas expects to have a loaded offense with four players who have hit over 18 home runs (Hannah Gammill, Rylin Hedgecock, Bri Ellis and Cylie Halvorson), a transfer (Nia Long) who was second in the nation in hits last season and a speedy lead off hitter (Reagan Johnson) who generates excitement from the first pitch.
The Razorbacks, who have seven different players selected as preseason All-Americans or in Softball American’s Top 100 college prospects, also have a deep pitching staff and a well-thought of defense.
“I think it helps a lot and it is always nice to have really strong options,” Deifel said. “I think for us it is just working out the best combination of that offensively, pitching staff wise and defensively. There are a lot of really strong players, a lot of moving parts so it is going to be kind of trying to figure it out early and let’s get it figured out as quickly as possible.”
The pitching staff will have the opportunity to get in plenty of innings with 27 tournament games slated over the first five weeks ahead of an SEC opening series at Auburn on March 15-17.
“We have a deep staff, a great pitching staff, one that compliments each other really well,” Deifel said. “I think what we have been working on in leading up to this first weekend is just how we are going to use them together and getting them as comfortable as possible in all of their roles instead of those typically defined roles of maybe a starter and a reliever.
“Just getting them used to working together, coming in for short spurts, staying in longer and I think that is the thing we are working to this weekend.”
Photo by John D. James